A Place to Start: Wander Creek Book One
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A clean and uplifting novel about overcoming the past and opening a closed heart to find a full and happy life because of the obstacles that block your way, not in spite of them.
Abby Barrett let herself into her fourth-floor studio apartment located in a modest neighborhood in Minneapolis. Compared to her former home—a thirteen-bedroom lakefront mansion with a movie screening room, indoor and outdoor pools and a tennis court—the apartment was claustrophobically small to say the least. It was actually closer in size to her former walk-in closet, which consisted of two rooms for clothes and accessories and another with a vanity and hair and make-up station.
Each time Abby turned the key in the apartment lock, pushed open the door, and was about to step into the dingy living room, she found herself wishing that it had all been a terrible dream, and that she would instead step into the huge front foyer of her former house, as if returning through a fourth-dimensional time portal. If only if she could look down and see the black-and-white marble floor under her feet, then gaze up at the crystal chandelier hanging from the thirty-foot ceiling. But of course, that never happened. Instead of coming home from a fabulous vacation or day at the spa, most days Abby returned from her minimum-wage job at the Paperie, a fashionable paper store she once frequented as a customer. Abby loved the owner, Carmen, and was truly grateful for the job, but there was really no room for advancement. She was stuck.
It had been a year since the FBI seized her home and belongings, and three months since her husband Jake was sentenced to a total of fifty years in federal prison for defrauding his clients out of hundreds of millions of dollars. All of her fashionable, fair-weather friends had dropped off, one by one. Most of them were appalled at Jake’s “light” sentence. After all, Bernie Madoff, who pulled off a similar Ponzi scheme, got 150 years.
Abby flicked on the light as she closed the apartment door behind her and tried to pretend that the navy pull-out couch, which served as both a sofa and a bed, and the banged-up Formica dinette set, both thrift store finds, were really a huge sectional white leather sofa set, and a dining room furniture suite that could seat twenty guests. No such luck. She took the few steps on the thread-bare carpet to the couch and collapsed onto it with a sigh. She still wasn’t used to being on her feet all day.
The only treasures the FBI had allowed Abby to keep were her clothes, childhood keepsakes, and laptop, which they had kindly, as the agent-in-charge put it, “cleaned” for her. They had replaced her old cell phone with a new one, for which she was actually grateful because it meant no one knew how to get ahold of her, including Jake. Of course, it would only be a matter of time until one of her old “friends” came into the Paperie. But she wouldn’t worry about that now. No sense in borrowing trouble.
Abby’s “closet” now consisted of a beat-up dresser and a metal rolling clothes rack. Her beautiful Channel suits, Prada dresses, Louis Vuitton purses, Jimmy Cho shoes, and countless other designer labels, were mostly folded in tissue paper and lovingly packed away in suitcases and cardboard boxes that lined one entire wall of the apartment. A few favorites hung on the rolling clothes rack. When she got home in the evenings, instead of changing into something more comfortable, she would take off her casual pants and top and randomly pull something from her treasure trove of clothes. It made her feel strong and powerful to wear the outfits she loved, but she had no place to wear them.
This particular evening, she pulled out a fuchsia evening gown that had cost thousands of dollars. That’s enough to buy a small used car, she reflected, although she herself had never actually bought a small car. She stepped into the dress and zipped it up the side. The silk fabric was soft against her skin. She rummaged around in another box and found a pair of strappy gold sling-backs. In the tiny apartment bathroom, she pulled back her shoulder-length, honey blonde hair into a high pony-tail, and expertly fashioned it into an elaborate up-do, fastening it with a gold hair clip. Next, she pulled out her box of designer make-up and applied eye liner and shadow, rouge, and a pink lipstick that perfectly matched her dress. For everyday use, she used make-up she could afford from the drugstore, and saved her designer stash for the special occasions she created for herself. Like this one.
“Not bad, if I do say so myself,” she said to her reflection.
She admired her high cheekbones, emerald-green eyes, and swan-like neck. At thirty-eight, her jawline had begun to sag a little, and crow’s feet had appeared at the edges of her eyes. She leaned over the sink and examined the bags under her eyes. Sleepless nights agonizing over the hundreds of people Jake cheated out of her their life savings had left dark circles under her eyes. On a positive note, her complexion had never been better. Instead of fancy coffees and expensive wines, she drank water from the tap. No sodas. No juices. No energy drinks. Sometimes, she splurged and bought a fresh lemon to squeeze over ice cubes before pouring in the water, and for one beautiful second, the zest of the fruit was so decadent that she moaned aloud. She had learned that now she needed to find joy in simple pleasures. But who knew that one lemon cost more than a dollar? She could buy two breakfast yogurts for that amount. She bought only generic brands, and they tasted as bland as she felt most days. She was terrified to spend any more money than necessary. She had gone from spending freely without a thought to what things cost, to saving thirty cents by buying a store brand yogurt instead of the kind with the real fruit on the bottom, and a little side pocket with nuts and raisins. Those things cost a fortune! Everything was expensive it seemed.
In her apartment’s galley kitchen—really only a fridge, microwave, sink, and stove, with a counter the size of a postage stamp—she put on a large apron over her gown and proceeded to fashion a grilled cheese sandwich to accompany a bowl of delicious tomato soup. Outside her window, she could practically feel the icy Minneapolis winter making plans to descend upon the city. But it was mid-September, and although the sun set earlier and rose later each day, the fall leaves were still vibrant, and the crisp air did give Abby an unexpected spring to her step. She had contemplated buying a stand-alone gas fireplace to cheer up her dim apartment. If she could find one on sale, she would splurge. And it would be worth it to just have tuna from a can for dinner and to skip breakfast for a month to have the beautiful red and orange flames embrace her apartment and help her through a long Minneapolis winter. She thought of her bedroom back home and the heated floors in her in-suite bathroom, and sighed. How pampered and fortunate she had been. And she had taken it all for granted.
After eating her dinner at the dinette table, Abby settled on the couch, still in her designer dress and shoes. She picked up her library book and opened it to her bookmark. For just a few hours every day, she could almost forget her circumstances as she lost herself in a different time and place. These days she gravitated to books about secret billionaires falling in love with ordinary women and cowboys who seem like hired hands but turned out to be the ranch owner who swept the heroine out of a life of drudgery and into a life of luxury.
Abby knew that she had to accept reality and leave her old life behind. But she didn’t want to. Before she got past the first page, her phone rang. Glancing at it, she shook her head. This number had been calling for weeks now, and the caller was leaving messages about some timeshare property or something in a place called Wander Creek in northern Minnesota. She only half listened to the messages because they were all practically the same. The ringing stopped, and Abby returned to her book. Then it started again. And again. And again. This time there were no messages.
Probably some reporter trying to trick me into talking about Jake, she told herself. She had been on the news again earlier in the week when Jake’s lawyers filed another appeal, and the whole story splashed over the local networks again, along with her photo. She was just grateful that without her expensive haircut and highlights and designer make-up she no longer resembled her former glamorous self. The news anchors always asked the same question and speculated on the answer: How could a woman with a master’s degree in philosophy and another in English literature be so clueless that for an entire decade she totally missed the fact that her husband was lining his pockets—their pockets—with hundreds of millions of dollars stolen from innocent people? For almost a year, Abby had asked herself the same question.
After ten minutes, the caller finally gave up. And then the knocking started.
“Ms. Barrett,” a man’s voice said from outside her apartment door. “I need to speak with you, urgently. I’ve been calling and leaving messages, but you haven’t returned my calls. I’m sorry for just appearing on your doorstep unannounced, but you’ve left me no choice.”
Abby crept toward the door, walking on her toes so the stiletto heels wouldn’t make any noise, and peered through the peephole. A small, prim-looking man in a three-piece grey suit stood outside, holding a briefcase. He sported a fairly decent attempt at a comb-over and wore small wire-rimmed glasses, and Abby guessed he was about seventy. He looked more like a lawyer than a reporter. Or maybe he was an FBI agent coming to interrogate her again. Abby knew, all-too well, that looks could be deceiving.
“Go away,” she barked through the door. “I’m not interested in your time share. And if you’re a reporter, well, then just go away and don’t come back.”
“What time share?” the man asked.
Through the peep hole, Abby saw his face scrunch up in confusion.
“The one in your messages,” she said. “The one in Wander Creek, Minnesota.” Abby leaned against the wall. Why had she engaged with this man? She had waited out many a reporter simply by outlasting their persistence at the door. All of them eventually gave up. Every time one of them came knocking, she flashed back to that early morning more than a year ago when she had woken up to the sound of her front door crashing open. She had jumped out of bed and hurriedly pulled on a peach silk bathrobe that matched her expensive nightie. She was just cinching the belt around her waist when the first agent entered the room, demanding to know where Jake was. Men and women in FBI windbreakers, guns drawn, swarmed in behind, crowding into her bedroom.
“Ms. Barrett, it’s not a time share. It’s a bequest of property. To you.” The man’s muffled voice behind her apartment door jerked her back into reality.
Abby heard something on the floor and picked up a business card the gentleman had just slipped under the crack. She read to herself, Monroe, Able and Associates, Attorneys at Law. So he was a lawyer. Moreover, Abby recognized the name of the law firm. Each year, Monroe, Able and Associates purchased several tables at a fundraiser she co-chaired for a local children’s hospital. Correction. Used to co-chair. The firm’s donations and pro bono work were legendary on the charity circuit. She also knew the name Jerome Monroe. She peered through the peephole again. Sure enough, it was the Jerome Monroe who had been featured recently on the cover of Minnesota Business magazine, which she had seen at the library.
“What kind of property?” she asked through the door.
Jerome Monroe shifted the briefcase to his other hand. She saw him visibly sag at her question. She almost felt sorry for him. It was a cold night, and the stingy landlord would not turn on the heat in the hallways until the first snow, and the lawyer wasn’t wearing an overcoat or gloves.
“Ms. Barrett, please let me in. I promise it will be worth your while.” He paused, then continued. “I think we’ve met before at the charity auctions for the children’s hospital. I’m not going to hurt you, I promise.”
Hurt me? That hadn’t even occurred to her. She worked out every day at her home gym and swam laps four times a week. Correction. Had worked out. But she was still reasonably fit. Her Spartan diet certainly hadn’t added any weight to her five-foot-seven-inch frame. And walking up and down the stairs twice a day, and to and from the bus stop, kept her in reasonably good shape. He was in his seventies. She could take him. Unless he had a gun. Or what if an accomplice lurked out of sight?
Stop it right now Abby! You are being insane, not to mention ridiculous.
She turned the three locks on the door, opened it and stepped aside, motioning for him to enter. Jerome Monroe walked into the apartment and blinked at her in surprise, and Abby realized he was probably not expecting to find her in an evening gown, and the juxtaposition of the elegance of the colorful dress against the shabbiness of the apartment almost made her laugh.
Jerome Monroe held out his hand and she accepted it. “It’s nice to see you again,” he said. “Can we sit down and talk?”
She nodded and glided to the dinette set where she invited him to take a seat. “Can I get you a glass of tap water?” she asked, always the gracious hostess. “Or maybe you’d prefer a glass of tap water.”
As she hoped, Jerome Monroe laughed. She had broken the ice, and with that accomplished, she sat down opposite him and waited for him to explain himself.